Danish writer/director Lars von Trier chose Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden, set amid lush countryside, for the exteriors in Melancholia (screening at 9.30pm this Saturday September 28 on SBS ONE) and every frame is reminiscent of the work of the old masters of the European art world. The music, taken from Richard Wagner's prelude to the opera Tristan and Isolde, adds to the grandeur of the drama.
[ Full schedule: SBS ONE: Sandy George Presents... ]
Yet the characters in the film are at odds with the visual and aural splendour because they are not coping well at all – perhaps not surprisingly given the end of the world is nigh. For Justine, played so well by Kirsten Dunst that it earned her a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, it's more than just not coping well. Her highly erratic and wildly unpredictable behaviour and her inability to conform means the film sometimes seems to be exploring a textbook case of mental illness.
It is no wonder that the Pera Museum in Istanbul opened its current program of films under the banner 'Where is my mind? Psychiatry in Cinema' with Melancholia. (For the record, the other six films chosen are The Master, Blindness, A Single Man, The Skin I Live In, The Place Beyond the Pines and The Virgin Suicides). “Both films and psychiatry focus on human thought, emotions, behaviour and motivation making a link between the two subjects inevitable,” it says in the program notes.
Besides prompting me to ponder mental health via its content, Melancholia also encouraged me to revisit recent writings and research about the link between creativity/genius and madness/psychosis, not just because of Justine's highly creative nature but also because of Von Trier's own openness about his depression.
Even the most cursory look online will reveal plenty of studies claiming a link and history is littered with great artists that illustrate it. Think writers Sylvia Plath and Virginia Wolf, the painter Vincent van Gogh and Australian pianist David Helfgott – and I mention him because we will be screening Shine, the film about him, in a short season of contemporary Australian classics in December. People have written whole books on this subject – and when Ridley Scott's filmmaking brother Tony Scott jumped off a bridge in LA last year the LA Times ran a list of five noted directors who had suicided – but there's also a lot of uncertainty too.
“When I write, I write about myself and she [Justine] gets depression and it's more or less a description of my own depression,” Von Trier has said about Melancholia. “But I see myself in both of the sisters. So, if you choose to, you can see them as two sides of the one person. That's how I write.”
The other sister, Claire, is played by Charlotte Gainsbourgh and, as the annihilation of the planet and everything on it draws closer, she becomes more and more fragile as the intelligence and strength that was always part of Justine's character grows.
I found the raw emotion of Melancholia and the film's ambition uplifting, but the film is part of what is known as Von Trier's depression trilogy: Antichrist preceded it and Nymphomaniac, also starring Gainsbourgh, is not yet released. Last Friday, The Guardian (see here) flagged the possibility that next year's Cannes Film Festival may be hosting the debut of a five-hour hardcore version of Nymphomaniac. I was very surprised to read that this version will have the lower halves of porn stars digitally spliced onto the bodies of the actors. But I wasn't surprised for long: isn't that just the sort of thing that should be expected from a filmmaker as bold and unpredictable as Von Trier. We need them in the mix I say.